Sunday, September 6, 2015

Managing the Science Classroom - The 4 I's and Science-Specific Systems

Everyone has different ideas about how to manage a classroom. A teacher’s personality greatly impacts their success and approach to their classroom.  My approach is directly connected to who I am as a person and teacher. Below are some general guidelines that I find helpful for classroom management (The Four “I”s), as well as some procedures for managing labs, and other science-specific classroom activities.

The Four “I”s of Classroom Management

It is very hard to coach new teachers on classroom management. There are so many other aspects of teaching that new teachers are trying to remember and the nuances of reading and responding to student behavior is enough to make any teacher give up.  That being said, the core strategies of good classroom management can be found in four steps:

Imagine It

Close your eyes (yes, I have done this while standing in front of a room full of chaotic children) and imagine the classroom you want.  Imagine what students are doing. Are they sitting? Are they hunched around desks? Are their books on their tables? Backpacks on their chairs? Phones away?  Think about what you want.  These are your expectations.  Try to pull out explicit, visible aspects of your expectations and take note of them.  It may help to even write them down.  Pick the most important one or two things that you would like to see in the classroom and focus on these. Once these are mastered (days to weeks to months later), then move on to other aspects.

Illustrate It

Once you can envision what you want to see, students will not magically understand and meet those expectations. First you have to show and teach the expectations. Explicitly state, model, and practice that behavior, then praise students who are getting it right.  If a student still isn’t meeting those expectations, assume the best and check in with him/her privately.  Model the behaviors and get confirmation that the student understands and can follow them, then remind him/her once more of the expectations before setting him/her free to enact them. Once the student gets the expectations right, praise him/her!  If a student is intentionally disobeying an expectation, it will become clear in this process.

Insist on It

So you know what you’d like to see in the classroom, you’ve explained it to your students, but how do you get students to do it day after day?  There is no magic trick.  The hardest part of achieving your classroom expectations is to insist on them.  When I was teaching middle school, I had the hardest time getting my students to start the Do Now right away.  My friend, on the other hand, had no problem. I would watch her students enter her room, sit down and start working.  When I asked her what she did, she couldn’t say; “That’s what they’re supposed to do!” was her reply.  I then noticed that as she stood by the door, welcoming students into the room, she would redirect those in the room to get started.  There was simply no tolerance for not doing the Do Now.  Students weren’t 100% silent when doing their work, but there was momentum in her classroom—students knew they needed to get started right away and if they didn’t, it would not be tolerated.

Insistence means that you do not ignore misbehaviors.  It is important to only focus on one or two expectations at a time, otherwise you will be overwhelmed.  If you re-state your expectations, re-model them (if necessary) and give students a chance to practice each time you do not see what you want, you will work towards a well-managed class. 

Consistently addressing misbehaviors can become exhausting. I believe this is why many of us (myself included) lose or never attain the classroom we envision—we do not stay on top of continually expecting the behaviors from everyone.  There will be many days when you are tired and want to let something go, or when you don’t have time to redirect a behavior because you will not get to a crucial part of your lesson.  However, when you are not consistent in your expectations, students will stop meeting them.

Intercept the Inequities

An often overlooked aspect of classroom management is how you invite or exclude students from being part of the class.  When a student is not meeting your expectations and you have gone through the other three "I"s, think about the ways in which that student might feel excluded from your class, or school as a whole. Do you call on that student as much as you call on others?  Do you welcome him or her into the class the same way?  Do you include examples of scientists that connect with that student?  It takes time and serious reflection to  acknowledge, let alone address, the ways in which you may exclude that student in subtle or obvious ways, but it is important to be aware of them. There are small ways you can ensure you are treating all students equitably--using a system to randomly call on students, including diverse science posters around your room, etc., but there are many ways in which you may undermine these gestures with your language, tone and even gestures. It is difficult to take the idea of how we, as teachers, spread inequity in our classroom and condense it into a few sentences here, so I will address this idea again in later posts. 

The Reality

Despite your best efforts, you will likely have days where the classroom feels mismanaged.  You are human, so are your students.  The Four I’s work in the grand scheme of management, but be mindful that we are working in a chaotic environment! Below are some other ways to trouble shoot problems in the classroom:

  • Film Yourself

    My number one weapon when things seem out of control is my video camera.  It is terrifying to film yourself teaching, but once you get over the fear, it becomes a source of objective information.  Sometimes I would think the class period was complete chaos, but when I looked at the film, I could see it was really only a few students acting out.  The film also can help me see when students misbehave and find reasons why. More often than not, it occurred when I droned on for too long giving directions!  Before filming, I always run it by my principal or department head (being clear that the video is just for me) and explain to my students that it is a tool for me to improve my own teaching.  Students wave to the camera at first, but they soon forget it is there.  Also, it is REALLY important you do not use the camera as a way to catch students misbehaving and punish them for it.  Although you may see lots of misbehaviors previously unknown to you, using film as a “gotcha” tool will only lead to mistrust and resentment and make your classroom more difficult over time.
  • Reach out the most to the hardest students

    It is likely you will face a few students who do not respond to redirection and the Four I’s.  When I realize who these students are, I also find ways to love these students the most.  It is much easier to accept and work with these students rather than try to battle them.  The first step starts with your mentality.  Instead of thinking that these kids are trouble, they don’t respect you, and dwelling on negative aspects of working with them, I like to flip my perspective on them.  I tell myself that they are good kids that must have some reason to act this way, and that it is a challenge to learn how to work with them and get them on my side.  I envision us as friends at the end of the year instead of enemies.  By switching your mindset, your words and actions will (hopefully) soon follow.  I often will spend time getting to know the student—going to their basketball games, asking them what their hobbies are, looking up notes they wrote in the ice breaker games at the start of the year.  If I find out they are interested in rap music, I might buy them a book about how to get involved in music production, or lend them a book that connects to something they mentioned they cared about.  I’ve also resorted to buying them Burger King and playing UNO with them at lunch—for no reason other than to get to know them better (UNO or some other game helps a lot—if you try to ask questions early on, it may feel phony. It’s amazing how much kids open up over a meal and a card game!)

Classroom Procedures that Make Labs Run Smoothly

A big part of having an efficient science class has to do with classroom management (see the first half of this blog!), however there are some steps that can help make science class run more smoothly.  Here are ways I have tried to run a tight ship:

Photo courtesy of USDA

Cafeteria Style Lab Set-Up 

The most time-consuming part of teaching science is preparing (and taking down) lab supplies.  Of course there will be times when you have to prepare something ahead of time, but if you learn to let students do everything they possible can to set up and take down labs, you save yourself a lot of time and energy!  I use a cafeteria-style system to minimize my prep work (mentioned in this blog post).  Here are some key steps:

  • Organize lab items into bins or containers, so that there is a class set of each easily accessible. 

  • Have a model lab tray set up with every item needed for the lab.  Put this at the beginning of the cafeteria line or on a document camera. You also can list items on a board or Powerpoint slide.

  • Pre arrange lab groups using a seating chart system (again see, this blog post) and assign one seat number or student as the materials collector.

  •  Leave plenty of time at the end of class for students to clean up and put away materials.  Different seats can have different tasks (e.g., washing out beakers, wiping down tables, checking under the desk for trash).  You can always play a review game in the last couple minutes of class while surveying desks and material bins. My favorite? Science Taboo!

  • This is the key step—be very observant and careful to correct any mistakes and praise any successes in correctly taking and putting away lab materials.  Do not let any student leave the classroom if it is messy.  This means leaving ample time before the bell rings and being a stickler for perfection (imagine putting on white gloves to check for dust!).  Although it may mean a few students step up and clean up others’ messes while everyone waits, the message is clear: keep the room clean!  Also, don’t assume a table or bin is clean by glancing from across the room.  I typically inspect each table before dismissing it during lab days.

Best Lab Group Award

One way to incentivize a clean lab room and good team work is to give a best lab group award at the end of lab class once in a while.  I review the expectations of a good lab group (works well together, stays on task, doesn’t ask me questions they can figure out on their own, and cleans up quickly and thoroughly), and then make notes while visiting each lab group.  Narrating the groups’ progress helps inspire some healthy competition (Table B is wiping down their table… Table H is working together).  The lab award usually meant some extra points on their lab grade (they would staple their award to their lab at the end of class).  A template of my lab reward cards can be found here (want the word doc version? Contact me on Facebook or Twitter!)

Always Include Lab and Safety Expectations

Before every lab, I always include lab and safety expectations.  The lab expectations are essentially what was mentioned for the best lab group award—students are expected to collaborate and work together through their inquiry, rather than asking for answers.  Staying on task, staying with the lab group and following directions are also key.  I also think of any safety hazard that could happen through the lab and explicitly address what the safety hazards are, and what to do in case they happen.  I leave these expectations up on the board during the lab. 

Make Lab Behavior a Grade

When I taught at an IB school, how students conducted themselves during a lab activity was part of their grade.  Grading students’ behaviors while trying to manage all the other pieces of running a lab can be difficult, but having a rubric and grade attached to how students conducted themselves during an inquiry lesson definitely had an effect.  Here are ways I made it work:

  • Post the rubric on the board.

    I included a rubric for students' "Attitudes in Science" at the back of their lab worksheet--see example above (adapted from the 2012 IB Curriculum). This served as my expectations – I showed the rubric on the document camera at the start of the lab, discussed what the highest level looked like and made sure there was no confusion.
  • Track  behaviors (or look like you are tracking). 
    I always had a clipboard with my roster and many columns to record grades.  This included participation and lab work, as well as grades from assignments.  It was nearly impossible to track everyone’s progress precisely during the lab, so instead I put a plus mark (+) if I saw students doing something exceptionally well and a minus mark (-) when there was a misbehavior I had to address.  I explained at the beginning of class that students would get a certain score (say a 5 in a range of 1 – 6) if I did not mark a + or a -, a “6” if they had an exceptional behavior and something less than a 5 if I addressed a misbehavior with them.  I always made it clear to the student if they lost a point and whenever possible gave a heads up if they were about to lose a point (“Are you about to ask me a question you could answer within your group?”).
  •  Make Challenging Directions to Follow
    If one part of your lab grade is following directions, early on in the year, include a strange step in your directions (for example, draw a star in the corner of your paper).  At the end of the lab give the exceptional grade to those who followed it (especially if it is a minority of the class) and make all students aware of the small steps.  Although you hopefully do not use cookbook labs for every experiment, following directions is an important part of a lab!

Was this post helpful?  It was partially inspired by a science teacher’s suggestion (This post is for you Madelyn!). What are you struggling with as a new science teacher?  Please contact me on facebooktwitter, or leave a comment below with a topic you would love some input on!

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